On Sept. 16, 25-year-old Edinburg resident Victor Godinez appeared via videoconferencing from the Hidalgo County Detention Center.
He was expressionless.
The hearing was being conducted remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, but this hearing was even more unusual than the current situation in the criminal justice system because of its rarity.
In what lasted just a few minutes, with the seriousness of the moment being felt through a computer screen, the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office announced that if Godinez is convicted of killing Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Moises Sanchez in 2019, prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
The state alleges Godinez shot Sanchez in the head and shoulder on April 6, 2019, after a car crash. Sanchez died on Aug. 24, 2019, following surgery related to his wounds in Houston.
Godinez is the latest Rio Grande Valley resident to face the death penalty if convicted.
But if state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. is successful in passing Senate Bill 188, which he filed on Nov. 13, the death penalty would be abolished.
That’s a longshot in Texas, a state that outpaces the rest of the nation in executions.
Lucio, who is pro-life, says in announcing the bill that all life must be preserved.
“All life must be protected. By eliminating state sanctioned executions, SB 188 falls within the conviction which holds all life to be sacred,” Lucio said in a news release.
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is supportive of Lucio’s efforts to abolish the death penalty, saying in a news release that the death penalty is incompatible with human dignity.
“Senator Lucio’s bills on this topic remind us that justice happens, not through rancor and vengeance, but out of a sense of responsibility beyond the present moment,” Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, said in the release.
Lucio also filed Senate Bill 189, which he says would correct a critical error in death sentence jury instructions that he says is misleading because it suggests 10 jurors must agree to impose the death sentence when the dissent of one juror is enough to change the sentence to life in prison without parole.
“A fair trial is central to our criminal justice system, and justice is undermined when juries are given incomplete or inaccurate information about their vital role,” Lucio said.
By passing these bills, the senator says Texas, a staunch anti-abortion state, would have more consistency in its values.
“When I think of our state’s poor reputation on the death penalty, I remember St. Paul the Apostle,” Lucio said. “If he could change from being a torturer of early Christians into one of Christ’s chief disciples, I believe Texas can have a similar transformation and demonstrate consistency in its pro-life values by adopting these reforms.”
The state of Texas has executed 13 Rio Grande Valley residents, seven from Hidalgo County and six from Cameron County, since 1982, according to available Texas Department of Criminal Justice online execution records.
Texas conducted the first execution in the United States that year after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The practice had been abolished by the court in 1972.
As of now, there are eight Valley residents on death row, including three from Hidalgo County and five from Cameron County.
Here is a look at some of those cases, as well as the journey of a Brownsville man wrongfully sent to death row and another man who the state put to death despite claims that his brother actually pulled the trigger that killed two officers in 1981.
KILLING OF JAVIER VEGA
On Aug. 3, 2014, off-duty Border Patrol agent Javier Vega, 36, spent the morning shooting with his family in La Feria before heading out to a fishing spot near Santa Monica in Willacy County.
He was with his wife, his father and his wife, his two children and a friend when Gustavo Tijerina Sandoval, now 36, and Ismael Hernandez-Vallejo showed up and changed their lives forever.
Tijerina and Vallejo attempted to rob the family, which was armed, and gunfire broke out. Vega was killed and his father, Javier Vega Sr., was shot and injured.
After their arrest, authorities charged the men with capital murder and attempted capital murder.
Testimony later showed that Tijerina owed someone in Mexico $3,500 for an engine he lost and the man had concocted a plan to steal a vehicle and authorities also believed the men were responsible for other robberies in the area.
Vallejo would eventually plead guilty and would be sentenced to life in prison.
Tijerina, however, took his case to trial, which lasted months.
When it was over, he was found guilty and would be the latest person in the Valley to be sentenced to death. This happened in 2018.
He showed no remorse and when asked if he wanted to say anything after his sentence, his statement was chilling.
“Thank you for making me famous. It was my dream to come out on TV,” he said, before being led away.
Border Patrol officials later renamed the Sarita Border Patrol checkpoint to the Javier Vega Jr. Checkpoint.
Tijerina will unlikely be executed anytime soon. Anyone sentenced to death gets an automatic appeal, a process which can last years — even decades.
Take the notorious Brownsville case of 40-year-old John Allen Rubio, who was convicted in 2003 for killing and beheading Julissa Quesada, 3, John E. Rubio, 14 months, and Mary Jane Rubio, 2 months, earlier that year.
Those were 41-year-old Angela Camacho’s children. She was Rubio’s common-law wife and she participated in the murders. Camacho was sentenced to life in prison, but is eligible for parole in 2043.
The children were smothered, stabbed and mutilated and their decapitated bodies were stuffed inside trash bags found near a bedroom in the house.
That house, which is down the street from the Cameron County Courthouse, has since been torn down and turned into the Tres Angeles Park, a community garden where people gather yearly to remember the victims of crime.
Rubio confessed to the crime, telling Brownsville police he believed there was an evil presence in the children and he killed them because he didn’t want them to grow up evil.
That conviction and sentence, however, were tossed in 2007 after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that statements made by Camacho were erroneously entered into evidence.
But in 2010, after a second trial, Rubio was again convicted on three counts of capital murder and sentenced to death.
However, his appeal on this conviction and sentence continues and is now in the hands of a federal judge.
In this appeal, Rubio’s attorney makes numerous arguments, including his defense team didn’t represent him properly and that his case was handled by then-District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who did not give favorable plea offers because he wouldn’t be personally enriched by doing so.
Villalobos is serving 13 years in federal prison for running a pay-to-play scheme in the Cameron County Courthouse. Federal authorities arrested numerous people in the scandal, including a state legislator and a state district judge.
Rubio also argues that his attorneys failed to hire a mental health expert; didn’t present evidence about the existence and effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy; failed to investigate and prepare for guilt/innocence; that the state elicited false and misleading testimony; that the defense failed to investigate and prepare evidence of his mental health; and that the state presented false testimony from A.P. Merillat.
Merillat is an “expert witness” who has testified in death penalty trials across Texas for years on the future dangerousness of people facing the death penalty. His testimony has been ruled misleading by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in some cases and appellate attorneys are increasingly attacking his testimony in death penalty appeals across the state.
The latest case in Rubio’s federal appeal occurred Oct. 13, when a federal judge gave his appellate attorneys more time to respond to a motion for summary judgment by the state.
Like nearly every case in the state, the appellate attorneys needed more time to respond because of the impacts on the judicial system and in prisons caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
UNJUSTLY SENTENCED TO DEATH
Manuel Velez, who was 40 at the time, was sentenced to death in 2008 for a heinous crime: the beating death of a baby.
However, he likely didn’t commit the crime after evidence obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, determined he was in Tennessee working construction, not Brownsville, when the child sustained the injuries that led to its death.
Velez spent four years on death row until 2012, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Merillat, the troubled state expert on future dangerousness, had provided misleading testimony during his sentencing phase.
His death sentence was tossed and Velez was removed from death row.
Velez’s fight, however, wasn’t over as the ACLU continued to investigate the case and found a troubling pattern of ineffective assistance of counsel and new scientific evidence that showed Velez likely didn’t inflict the injuries to the child’s brain that led to death.
In fact, it appears that Velez’s then-girlfriend, Acela Moreno, who had a history of child abuse, likely killed her child.
She reached a plea deal with the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office to testify against Velez and was sentenced to 10 years in prison on a lesser charge. In 2010, she was released and deported to Mexico.
The state argued the fatal injuries occurred within the two weeks that Velez lived with Moreno. The new scientific evidence heavily disputed that allegation and Velez’s original attorneys actually had a report suggesting the injuries were older than the state was claiming and ignored it.
Eventually, Velez’s conviction was also thrown out and a new trial was ordered.
However, after his attorneys advised him that his case for actual innocence was strong he could always again be convicted of the killing and sent back to prison.
In the end, Velez opted to take a plea deal for injury to a child and receive time served so he could continue on with his life in Brownsville, where he still lives.
On May 12, 1993, the state of Texas executed 45-year-old Leonel Herrera.
A jury had convicted Herrera of shooting and killing 25-year-old Los Fresnos officer Enrique L. Carrizales in 1981. He was sentenced to death.
After receiving the death penalty, Herrera pleaded guilty to shooting and killing 37-year-old DPS Trooper David Rucker during the same criminal transaction.
Authorities say Carrizales pulled Herrera over for speeding after the man shot and killed Rucker, which the officer didn’t know. Then, Herrera shot him too.
Carrizales was presented a single mugshot as he was dying. That mugshot was of Herrera and Carrizales identified him as his killer before he died.
Herrera was convicted on two eyewitness identifications, numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence and a hand-written note by Herrera impliedly admitting his guilt, court records show.
Carrizales’ passenger also identified Herrera.
Like all people sentenced to death row, Herrera appealed.
He lost his first appeal, but as his 1993 execution date inched closer Herrera’s attorneys requested federal habeas corpus relief, arguing that new evidence in the form of sworn affidavits showed he was actually innocent.
“He supported this claim with affidavits tending to show that his now-dead brother had committed the crimes,” a 1993 Supreme Court ruling states.
Hector Villarreal, his brother Raul’s attorney, and Juan Franco Palacios, who shared a jail cell with Raul in Hidalgo County, both swore that the man confessed to each of them to killing the officers, who Raul said were caught up in drug trafficking along with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and his brother.
The Supreme Court ruling states the Raul didn’t say anything because he claimed to be threatened by the sheriff’s office and because he believed his brother would be acquitted.
In 1984, Raul was murdered by Jose Lopez, who worked with the sheriff on drug trafficking matters, to cover all of this up, according to Villarreal’s affidavit.
The Supreme Court, however, denied his request for federal habeas relief from execution based on his claim of actual innocence.
“Where, as here, a defendant has been afforded a fair trial and convicted of the offense for which he was charged, the constitutional presumption of innocence disappears. Federal habeas courts do not sit to correct errors of fact, but to ensure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution. Thus, claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief,” the Supreme Court ruled in late January 1993.
Less than five months later, the state of Texas executed Herrera, who used his last words to proclaim his innocence.
“I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Make no mistake about this; I owe society nothing. Continue the struggle for human rights, helping those who are innocent, especially Mr. Graham,” Herrera said before being killed. “I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight. May God bless you all. I am ready.”
Hidalgo County convicts executed
>> Robert Ramos, 64, Nov. 14, 2018
>> Ruben Cardenas, 47, Nov. 8, 2017
>> Pablo Vasquez, 38, April 6, 2016
>> Arturo Diaz, 37, Sept. 26, 2013
>> Robert Garza, 30, Sept. 19, 2013
>> Robert Lookingbill, 37, Jan. 22, 2003
>> David Castillo, 43, Sept. 23, 1998
Cameron County convicts executed
>> Jesus Aguilar, 42, May 24, 2006
>> Irineo Montoya, 29, June 18, 1997
>> Davis Losada, 32, June 4, 1997
>> Leonel Herrera, 45, May 12, 1993
>> Jesus Romeo Jr., 27, May 20, 1992
>> Jerry Bird, 54, June 17, 1991
ON DEATH ROW
Hidalgo County convicts:
>> Rodolfo Medrano, 41
>> Humberto Garza, 46
>> Juan Ramirez, 36
Cameron County convicts:
>> Gustavo Tijerina Sandoval, 36
>> Melissa Lucio, 52
>> John Allen Rubio, 40
>> Ruben Gutierrez, 43
>> Jose Rivera, 57